The Unique Ingredient In Catalan Beef Stew

Few meals deliver a warm embrace like a stew on a chilly winter day. Slowly bubbling with decadent aromas wafting throughout the kitchen, this dish takes on many forms worldwide. From a chickpea-based vegetarian Moroccan version to a rich cognac, bacon, and beef French Bourguignon, the variations are countless.

In Catalonia, stews are a particularly hearty component of national culinary pride. As documented by Culinary Backstreets, the agricultural town of Juneda hosts an annual stew-making competition. Dozens of families simmer away at their favored rendition in open-fire clay pots, called cassoles. Ingredients like artichoke hearts, snails, blood sausage, and ribs are used as thickeners, a winning combination is crowned, and then the entire town feasts on the results.

To achieve full-flavored stews, Catalan cooks often add a thickener towards the end of cooking, known as picada. Made with fried bread, nuts, garlic, herbs, and a range of other aromatics, this hyper-dense, very flavorful sauce is entirely-unique to the region, per Food52. While bearing a resemblance to pesto, picada is never consumed on its own, and its additional included aromatics may surprise you.

Catalan beef stew uses chocolate for thickening and flavor

Fricandó, a slow-cooked beef stew made with beef shoulder is traditionally finished with mushrooms. To amplify the rich sauce, a few grams of dark chocolate are pulverized into the picada, creating a silky, complex result, via Spanish Sabores.

Deep in the Pyrenees mountains, Catalan stew recipes intermingle with French techniques just over the mountain range. Not dissimilar to Coq Au Vin, a stew named civet utilizes wine as an essential component for both marinating and stewing the meat. Until recently, this dish was also commonly thickened with animal blood. Since supermarkets erased access to this ingredient, chocolate became a replacement for the velvety texture, explains Saveur.

Cacao's 300 aromatic compounds and chocolate's decadent texture impart many qualities perceived as delicious, per The Manual. Yet other than in some Mexican moles, and Catalan stews, it rarely appears in savory meals. So especially when preparing hearty beef fare, like this pancetta, ancho and chocolate chili, don't be afraid to add some of the unsweetened confection.